Free radicals form when negatively-charged electrons inside an atom become unbalanced, according to Robert Keith, Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at Auburn University. These electrons travel in pairs, and when one is lost, the atom becomes a free radical that will try to steal a replacement electron from other cells. This causes oxidative stress, or damage. Antioxidants can prevent the formation of free radicals and reduce cellular damage resulting from conditions such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
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All antioxidants are either exogenous, like those found in vitamins and foods, or endogenous, produced by your body. Endogenous antioxidants are more powerful free radical fighters than those you can get from your diet.
Your body makes five types of endogenous antioxidants: superoxide dismatuse, also called SOD, alpha lipoic acid, or ALA, coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, catalase and glutathione peroxidase, abbreviated as Gpx. Professor Keith says that SOD, catalase and glutathione peroxidase are the three most important of these because the body can produce more of them when certain free radicals are present.
SOD can convert free radicals into hydrogen peroxide, which catalase and Gpx can then turn into oxygen and water, neutralizing them. The Ear Nose and Throat Alliance reports that ALA has properties that can regenerate and recycle some exogenous antioxidants, as well as Gpx and CoQ10. Gpx can also repair DNA damage caused by free radicals on a cellular level, which helps your immune system and can slow down aging.
Your body loses some of its ability to produce endogenous antioxidants as you get older. The Ear Nose and Throat Alliance indicates that some health conditions such as cancer, Parkinson’s, muscular dystrophy and HIV/AIDS can diminish the body’s endogenous antioxidants as well. ALA can only perform as an antioxidant when your body has more of it than it needs.
The Ear Nose and Throat Alliance reports that Japan produces CoQ10 supplements that are available in the United States. However, research into whether or not they are actually beneficial is still pending as of 2010. They also warn that no research into the long-term effects of ALA supplements has yet been done, though it seems safe on a short-term basis. Professor Keith says that endogenous supplements become ineffective when your body breaks them down in the process of digestion, so the only beneficial endogenous antioxidants are the ones your body makes. He also indicates that the body is incapable of producing enough endogenous antioxidants to combat free radicals on their own, and he therefore recommends increasing your intake of exogenous antioxidants to balance their loss due to disease or aging.